Victoria Petroff
Victoria Petroff
International journalist and producer

Persian Lessons: the Holocaust story which will be etched on your memory

(Facebook/Sol Bondy)

Vadim Perelman’s movie has been released and it tells a tale about the Holocaust through the extraordinary story of a clever Jewish guy and his friendship with a German officer. For the film director who has Jewish roots this story is largely personal. His grandmother fled Kiev while pregnant and gave birth to a daughter on the train. It is not known how her life would have turned out if she had stayed in the city for a few more days. But Vadim Perelman would definitely not have been born then. However, life turned out differently and now we can appreciate his masterpiece “Persian Lessons” on the big screen, as well as his other international projects, which are understandable and close to any viewer.

The film was inspired by the short story “Erfindung einer Sprache” (“The Invention of a Language”) by German writer Wolfgang Kohlhaase. The story was slightly changed by the screenwriter Ilya Tsofin, however, the main details remained unchanged: at the height of World War II a Jewish man, wanting to save himself from execution, pretends he is from Iran and is captured by a Nazi who dreams of learning Persian. As the Jewish man doesn’t know Persian, he starts to teach a Nazi… an imaginary language. 

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“Persian Lessons” premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival. After the final scene, the audience silently stood up and began to applaud. According to those present, the standing ovation lasted for at least 10 minutes. Still, for the director of the movie Vadim Perelman, the assessment of the most ordinary viewers, not the guests of the film festival, was much more important.

The next day I went to Potsdam, where the film was shown to regular people who couldn’t get to this festival. There were many students, a lot of people came after work. It was raining outside. It was cold and miserable. This moment was the most important for me, because I saw their faces, saw their tears, saw some kind of admiration. And when they stood up and started applauding, they didn’t know that I was there, in the audience. They didn’t know that the film’s creator was present. The audience just clapped looking at the black screen, at the closing credits, – said Vadim Perelman

And now let’s move on to the plot of the film itself. In the movie “Persian Lessons”, a slim, big-eyed Belgian Jew, Gilles Kramer, posing as a Persian, is captured by Klaus Koch, an officer responsible for feeding military leaders. Koch has a dream to emigrate to Tehran where his brother emigrated and wants to open a restaurant there. In order to implement his plans, he needs to learn Persian. A young man who introduced himself as Reza, with a book in Persian in his hands, should be able to help Koch fulfill his dream. So, Gilles gets into the kitchen, where in his off-duty time he has to teach him Persian. To save his life, he is forced to invent his own language and pass it off as Persian. In order to save his life, he needs to invent his own language and pass it off as Persian. In front of Gilles’ eyes, hundreds of prisoners are periodically sent to be shot and he is forced to hide all his emotions. What is he driven by? His will to live and fear, naturally. A never-ending sense of guilt will be with him until his last breath.

The German officer Koch is a very morally ambiguous character. On the one hand, he is a Nazi who leads people to the firing squad. On the other hand, he has a strong interest in cooking, music and poetry. For instance, he enjoys writing poems for Gilles. Moreover, he is clearly capable of acts of generosity. Is he duped by the system? Yes, but he is an executioner at the same time. Meanwhile, Gilles and Koch become friends. It is a relationship based on fear. The filmmaker makes us hate the character first, but then you begin to feel sympathy for the protagonist. But is it possible to sympathize with or idealize the executioner? After all, he made this choice for himself. 

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Koch is played by the brilliant German actor Lars Eidinger, known not only for his performances at the Schaubühne Theater in Berlin, but also for the films “Clouds of Sils Maria”, “Personal Shopper”, “Matilda” and others. And Gilles is played by the Argentine actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, whom you should know from the “BPM” (“Beats per Minute”) movie. Both actors acted perfectly — it seems that Nahuel experiences fear and trembles throughout the film, and Eidinger demonstrates the whole palette of feelings, states and emotions, from rage to playfulness, from dreaminess to confusion. And, naturally, all the viewers will get a heartrending finale. 

(Facebook/Olga Shulgin)

The system of memorizing invented words by recalling the names of prisoners will allow Gilles to pass on to future generations the names of more than two thousand Jews who were shot by the Nazis.

It is crucial to understand that there are always a large number of people who stand squarely behind dictators. One person alone isn’t able to become so strong and powerful. Now, speaking about the events of the past, people are trying to make us (and themselves) believe that they were against the dictatorship. You will never meet a German who would comfortably telling that his ancestors fought for the Nazis or were Nazis. Everyone says that his grandparents were against the Nazi ideology, but this is a lie. That’s why we must finally come face-to-face with the truth and accept the fact that we were involved in this,  – Lars Eidinger says in one of his interviews

Memory plays a key role in Vadim Perelman’s movies. He demonstrated that once more in “Persian Lessons”. Our main protagonist not only lives to remember, but also remembers to live. He keeps in mind a giant dictionary of non-existent vocabulary not to be discovered by the Nazis. And the winner in this war is the one who finds a balance between the terrifying past and the future, which is dragged to the bottom by the old traumas of history.

About the Author
Victoria Petroff (Petrova) was born in Moscow, Russia on 27 May 1988 in the diplomatic family. At the age of two, Victoria's family relocated to Czechoslovakia, where she spent her early childhood. She graduated from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv with a Master of Arts in International Journalism. After receiving her education, she studied business-course in London (London City University) and had an internship in the U.S. Embassy. Victoria has over 15 years of experience in the field of media. She worked in different federal (NTV Channel, Channel One Russia, Channel Russia 2) and international media. Her common documentary projects with NBC Sport (USA) were nominated for Emmy Awards. Victoria’s field of work - social and historical topics. In 2015 she joined a film industry. She working in Moscow and in London (UK). The main idea of her projects - to create cultural and social connections between different countries. She wants to tell about historical lessons, which will help to not make mistakes from the past.
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